Home > doctrines, heaven, hermeneutics, Old Testament > “Protestant Purgatory”? Confusion Regarding Regeneration and the Holy Spirit

“Protestant Purgatory”? Confusion Regarding Regeneration and the Holy Spirit


(Yes, it’s just a nickname, ‘Protestant Purgatory’… not actual purgatory, though something with the similar feature of a third “holding place” pre-Calvary.  Moving along to the main issue of this post: people who think Regeneration equals Permanent Indwelling of the Holy Spirit.)

A recent online discussion brought out something quite strange: Christians who actually believe the “Protestant Purgatory for Old Testament Saints” myth, the idea that the Old Testament saints were not regenerated (since they did not have the Holy Spirit indwelling) and did not go to heaven but to “Abraham’s Bosom,” a type of purgatory holding place until Calvary, at which time Christ moved them to heaven.  It turned out that this idea (at least the second part, about the OT saints not going to heaven) comes from a particular teacher of Internet and Youtube popularity; his teaching (link provided by the person in this discussion who believes this) can be found here.

The reasoning for this idea, as presented in the discussion, included emphasis on Luke 16, the parable/story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, along with other questionable ideas such as that the Old Testament never used the term “born again,” and thinking (without scriptural reasoning) that the disciples themselves were not saved and no different from unbelievers before Christ’s Resurrection/Pentecost.

As a friend later observed, “I think the problem is a faulty understanding of the ministry of the Holy Spirit throughout the Bible and the history of redemption. It is not correct to say that only those who have the dwelling of the Spirit can be regenerated, because we are not saved by the dwelling of the Spirit; but we have the dwelling because we have been saved (or regenerated).”

Surely such confusion and error is a symptom of today’s “Youtube generation” and an evangelical community not grounded in the scriptures. Scanning through S. Lewis Johnson sermons on the topic of regeneration and the post-Pentecost indwelling of the Holy Spirit, for instance, I find that he stated, casually in passing reference: Now the Old Testament says that believers were regenerated, and so we have to answer, “Yes the Old Testament says believers were regenerated.” “Were the Old Testament believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit permanently?” Now personally I have to reply, “No.”  But he didn’t go through the OT scriptures to prove it, just assuming that everyone understood this.  John MacArthur likewise makes passing reference to this as a fact, as in his two part lesson about the salvation of infants that die: there are only two places a soul can go when it dies, either into the presence of the Lord (heaven) or away from God’s presence (hell).

So much could be said in response to this error/myth, but for a summary of the obvious hermeneutical and doctrinal problems here:

1) Does anyone else (among the scholars and Bible teachers) teach this idea?  The “checking principle” of hermeneutics demands humility on the part of anyone teaching a unique interpretation, that perhaps his interpretation is wrong.  Actually, it turns out that this idea (OT saints went to some holding area) is a “fictitious and fabulous” error of the papists, denounced later by Protestants such as (18th century) John Gill (Spurgeon’s predecessor, covenantal premillennialist and high Calvinist) (reference his commentary here).  Which makes one wonder why any 21st century Protestant Calvinist would teach an error from the Catholics of old.

2) Excessive focus on a parable and drawing strong doctrinal support from such a text.  Also this approach to God’s word ignores the whole body of teaching concerning the history of redemption and the nature of salvation and regeneration as taught throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.

3) Teaches the idea of purgatory, a non-biblical idea, and a non-biblical different “truth” for Old Testament times: a third place for the soul/spirit to go, rather than the two places of biblical Christianity (into the presence of God or away from God), this third place of limbo, a holding area or purgatory for all people who died before Calvary.

Expanding on point two above, the body of teaching concerning redemption, salvation and regeneration, S. Lewis Johnson in this message explains the logical necessity of regeneration:

regeneration is needed for three reasons. First, because of the condition of humanity, we are naturally dead. We are alienated and enemies. We are blind. We are hardened. We are slaves of sin. We are ignorant. The Bible says that if we have not been born again, that we are really of the devil, and so that the condition of humanity is sufficient to make very plain to us, the necessity of regeneration if we expect to enjoy the presence of God some day.

Regeneration is also needed because of the character of holiness; that sin separates us from a holy God, and because God is a holy God, he cannot have fellowship with sin, and we are dead in sin. And so the holiness of God separates us from him, and we need regeneration, a new birth. We need to become a new creation. And finally, regeneration is needed because of the character of heaven itself. In the Bible, we are told in the Book of Revelation that “there shall not enter into heaven anything that defileth.” Heaven is not like earth, and consequently, if we are to enter into heaven, we must be pure. Therefore, we need a new birth. We cannot enter into heaven, dead in sin. We cannot enter into heaven the slaves of sin. We cannot enter into heaven in any way touched by sin. What we need is a perfect righteousness and a perfect holiness, and that can only come to us through a new birth, and a consequent justification of life.

That believers before the Cross were regenerated and not the same as natural man is obvious.  Jesus’ words to Nicodemus make clear that to be born-again was a present reality, and something that Nicodemus, as a teacher, was expected to have known. If no one was regenerated with a new heart before the Cross/Pentecost, Nicodemus would have had a very good excuse for not knowing this.  That Nicodemus should have known this also makes clear that the Old Testament taught the same as the New, that believers of all times were given a new heart and that they went to be with the Lord at their death, same as with us in the Church age.  God’s word is also quite clear on where Enoch and Elijah went, that they were raptured and taken into the presence of God (heaven); to say they went instead to some other “holding place” until Christ’s death is unscriptural and ridiculous.

Matthew 16:17 tells us that flesh and blood had not revealed to Peter his understanding (that Jesus was the Christ), “but my Father who is in heaven. Throughout the Old Testament God chose and elected His leaders and prophets.  Daniel was one beloved by the Lord (Daniel 10:19).  Numbers 11:29 and Deuteronomy 29:4 point out that God did put His spirit on some individuals. The Deuteronomy text points out to the unbelieving people that “the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear,” which in context is a clear contrast between the great numbers of unbelievers and the relative few including Moses, Joshua and Caleb, who had been given a heart to understand.

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  1. March 28, 2013 at 11:19 am

    Without entering an unsought and protracted online debate, I must nevertheless offer the following caveats by way of reply:

    1. That Luke 16:19-30 is a parable is not a given, and, in fact is not explicitly taught in Scripture. Such an assumption concerning the literary nature of this account is problematic on other grounds, regardless of the validity or lack thereof in proposed explanations of the significance of “Abraham’s bosom”.

    2. The common, indeed, sadly, very common teachings concerning the ministry of the Holy Spirit prior to Acts 2 (not just under the Old Covenant) are by and large based on silence, and constitute a gross misunderstanding of what did and did not take place in Acts 2, 8, 10, and 19. One is left wondering how anyone was ever saved, sanctified and assured of their salvation at all prior to Acts 2, to say nothing of being a friend of God, or a man after God’s own heart!

    3. The issue of the intermediate state (between death and resurrection) of believing humans, whether involving Old Testament saints, New Testament saints, or all of the above, may be dealt with on other grounds, and indeed must be. This may be done without breaching either: 1) the Scriptural presentations of the singular nature of salvation and means of sanctification from the Fall to the New Heavens and New Earth, or the 2) the explicit contexts of passages of Scripture like Luke 16:19-30.

    4. The pagan notion known as “purgatory”, including its modern “spin-offs”, finds no grounds in Scripture, and violates fundamental Gospel truths. This fatal error must be exposed for what it is without allowing those committed to it to set the agenda in some “gnat straining/camel swallowing” exegetical gymnastics.

    Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria,

    John T. “Jack” Jeffery
    Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
    Greentown, PA

    • March 28, 2013 at 11:41 am

      Thanks, Jack, good points. This post really had two issues, from the original lengthy discussion: 1) whether OT saints were regenerated or not, and 2) where people went when they died in the OT, into the presence of God or into some third “holding area.”

      Yes, I’ve heard that there is some question as to whether Luke 16 is a parable or a story, some say one, some say the other. I still tend to think that too much is being made sometimes of a few particular texts such as this one, to support the teaching (and one the Catholics held to and later denounced by Protestant Reformed preachers, as for example the John Gill commentary I looked at).

      The participants in the discussion did not think the OT saints were regenerated, due to a confusion of thinking that “regeneration = indwelling Holy Spirit, therefore the OT saints were not regenerated.” They even gave examples, saying how they thought Jesus’ disciples were no different in their spiritual condition from anyone else during Christ’s earthly ministry, and saying that Elijah, a true OT rapture case, did not go to heaven or into the presence of God. That was the real issue, that they did not understand the concept of regeneration apart from what we have post-Pentecost — that plus the idea that the OT saints did not go into the presence of God but to a non-heaven holding area.

      I used the term “purgatory” as reference to a nicknamed idea for a blog title, and now I’m going to update to include quote marks around the idea.

      • March 28, 2013 at 12:40 pm

        Understood. I think that you have identified what may indeed be the primary issue. However, even denying the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to the regenerate Old Testament saints becomes problematic for their sanctification and sealing. The consideration of what it would mean to us not to have that today, and then reasoning back to them as if that were the case should certainly raise some eyebrows or at least give pause. Bottom line: failure to differentiate between the ministries of the Holy Spirit to individuals and the corporate ministry of the Holy Spirit leads to both soteriological and pneumatological errors.

        On the issues that continue to revolve around the relationship of Old Testament saints to the Holy Spirit regarding the ministries of regeneration, indwelling, sealing, etc. I recommend the following modern works that get at least some of it right!

        John F. Walvoord,The Holy Spirit: A Comprehensive Study of the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954, 1958, 1965); on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Holy-Spirit-John-F-Walvoord/dp/0310340616 [accessed 28 MAR 2013].

        Leon J. Wood, The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976; reprint Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998); on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Holy-Spirit-Old-Testament/dp/1579101283/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364490465&sr=1-6 [accessed 28 MAR 2013].

        James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments, in the New American Commentary Studies in Bible & Theology series, series ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006); on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Indwelling-Presence-Testaments-Commentary/dp/0805443835/ref=pd_sim_b_2 [accessed 28 MAR 2013].

        Of course they stand on the shoulders of Calvin, Owen, Edwards and Kuyper on the Holy Spirit, but the work goes on!

        Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria,

        John T. “Jack” Jeffery
        Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
        Greentown, PA

  2. Truth2Freedom
    March 28, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Reblogged this on Truth2Freedom's Blog.

  3. Neil Schoch
    March 29, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    Greetings1
    Jim McClarty’s reply (see link) to the believer in Indonesia is for the most part correct. Having rightly pointed out that the King James translation wrongly interprates the Hebrew word “Sheol” as the grave or hell, it is somewhat confusing for a new believer when he uses the incorrect word himself towards the end of the article.
    I am unable to agree with him regarding Matthew 27:52-53.
    At this resurrection there is only a select number of people who are resurrected. Note the use of the word “many” – not all. Some folk, probably Saints were resurrected and were to appear to many as a witness of the resurrection power that raised Jesus from the dead. The Lord Jesus was very selective in whom He appeared to after His resurrection and was only seen by His followers, hence the resurrection of others.
    Nothing is said as to what happened to these people, so it is vital not to make a doctrine out of this event. The most likely case is that they would have eventually died as per normal, as would be the case of Lazarus and Jairus’s daughter who were raised from the dead by the Lord previously.
    Had there been a general resurrection of all OT Saints at this time, I’m sure historians like Josephus and Tacitus would have recorded the massive increase in the populaion around Jerusalem, but they didn’t.

    Lynda. The claim that the taking up of Enoch and Elijah is somehow proof that all OT saints went to be with the Lord in Heaven at death is false. Both of these saints are exceptions to what was normal and are an OT type pointing forward to the day when the Church will be raptured.
    The OT teaching of a holding place (Sheol) for the righteous until the death and ascension of Christ is not unscriptural or ridiculous, far from it.
    The Hebrew word “sheol” meaning the place of the departed souls and spirits, or the abode of the dead is first found in Genesis 37:35:- Jacob said “For I shall go down into Sheol to my son in mourning.” There are a number of Hebrew words that could have been used if the Holy Spirit intended to refer to a grave. Notice that Jacob was going “to his son” whom he saw as being still alive despite being told that Joseph had been torn apart by wild animals. He was also going to a place were there were emotions – in mourning – clearly not a grave for dead bodies, of which thre would not have been one anyway due to the “supposed” manner of Josephs death.
    Follow the usage of the word Sheol throughout the OT and you will find a progressive revelation of truths in regard to the meaning. One of the early teachings is of the division of Sheol into two places, one for believers and the lower for unbelievers.
    By the time the Lord spoke the words of Luke 16:19-31 any person taught in scripture should have understood His meaning and even more so today.
    The “parable” in Luke 16 is based on revealed truth in the OT scriptures.
    The upper section of Sheol (Abrahams bosom – paradise) was emptied of believers when Christ ascended into Heaven (Ephesians 4:8), leaving the lower section of unbelievers until the resurrection unto death at the great white throne judgement.

    The idea of purgatory is nowhere found in scripture and it is clear that the “great gulf fixed” in Luke 16 shows that there is no teaching of earnng deliverance or savation after death in Sheol or Hades, which is the Greek equivalent in the NT.

    Hell – Gehenna – Lake of Fire. These words are the same and are the eternal dweling place of unbelievers, in contrast to Sheol and Hades which are temporary.

    Nowhere is it taught in the Word of God that the Holy Spirit indwelt all OT believers.
    The Holy Spirit sovereignly came upon whom He willed in help and quidance and scripture repeatedly promises a future outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Israel after the church age.

    Space doesn’t allow a proper coverage of these matters but I trust this will help.
    God bless,
    Neil.

    • March 30, 2013 at 9:24 am

      Thanks for your comments, Neil. Agreed that the idea of purgatory is false; and that the Holy Spirit did not permanently indwell OT believers. We don’t really understand the precise nature of their salvation and understanding, only that they were regenerated / reborn, yet did not have the Holy Spirit permanently indwelling them. The books that Jack referenced above look interesting, as to further learning about this issue.

      As to the issue about Enoch and Elijah: in the original discussion, the people believing this error thought that OT saints were not regenerated and therefore could not go to heaven when they died, but that they had to wait until Christ came and got them out of a separate holding place (Abraham’s bosom) which was not in the presence of God. They applied this also to Elijah and Enoch, that even those two individuals did not go to be with the Lord — again because OT saints were not regenerated, therefore could not go to heaven/to the presence of God.

  4. Neil Schoch
    March 30, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Thanks Lynda.
    Hebrews 11 is the great chapter in relation to the salvation of the OT saints.
    By faith – by faith – by faith. Their obedience to God, (although lacking many times just like us today) their measure of obedience to the Law and the sacrificial system which pointed to Christ, did not save them but brought about atonement or a covering.
    Ultimately there is only one means of salvation and forgiveness of sin and that is the shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only effective sacrifice.
    Although in the Abraham’s bosom section of Paradise which is a place of bliss and joy, until Christ’s ascension, verse 40 is important:- “God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.”
    Paul in Philippians 3:12;14 and 20-21 makes it clear that we will be made perfect when the Church is caught up to be with the Lord.
    So the OT saints will be perfected at the same time as us, but not as part of the Bride of Christ. John the Baptist as the link between the OT and the NT refers to himself as the “friend of the Bridegroom.” See John 3:29. The OT saints are then seen as in Heaven at the marriage supper of the Lamb as those who are “called or invited” to be there as quests or witnesses. A bride and bridegroom are never invited as they are the central figures of any wedding. See Revelation 19:9. The Lord’s parables relating to a “wedding feast” takes place on earth in the Millenium as a joyous celebration of Christ with the saints of all ages. What a prospect we have to look forward to!.No Old Testament saints will miss out.

    Thanks Jack fot your references but I’m not sure if I wiil be left here on earth long enough to read them all. And some people claim the Bible is boring – Never!

  5. Pam S.
    April 3, 2013 at 6:10 am

    Linda, as a former Catholic, I do not see Jim McClarty”s explanation of this to be a Protestant Purgatory. He never says they are unregenerate. Eph.4:8-10 explains the concept and the time of the change. Who were the multitiude of captives, in your opinion, who were led UP?

    • April 3, 2013 at 7:47 am

      Well, as said before, “Protestant Purgatory” is a nickname. I never said anything about what McClarty himself believes concerning the first issue (regenerate or unregenerate); that may be just a misunderstanding on the part of his listeners.

      The original discussion referenced here was with a layperson citing McClarty as the source for his own understanding. Since that person is mistaken concerning the teaching of regenerate / unregenerate, it would be great for someone, you and/or McClarty, to straighten him out.

      As to his teaching concerning the second point, about the Old Testament saints being in “Abraham’s Bosom”: the links speak for themselves, both McClarty’s statement as well as the standard Protestant response, as from John Gill, that that particular teaching originated with the Catholics. Granted that not all Catholics, even today, know and believe everything taught by the Catholic church, much less things taught by the Catholic church a few centuries ago during John Gill’s time. But evidently this teaching is from the Catholic Church.

      As to the real meaning of Ephesians 4:8-9, the rest of John Gill’s commentary can be found at that link, concerning what that passage is actually teaching. Also this from H.A. Ironside’s commentary: “Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things. We are reminded that He who has gone up higher than any other man ever went, once for our redemption went down lower than any other man has gone. I wonder if our souls really take in the fact that He is a man like ourselves, only glorified, sinless, and holy, sitting today on the throne of God. A man’s heart beats in His breast, and there are no sorrows that come to His people but what He enters sympathetically, compassionately, into them.”

  6. Pam S.
    April 3, 2013 at 8:39 am

    As far as the meaning of the passage you are refrencing by Ironsides, I think that sometimes commentators differ on interpretation depending on whether they view it spiritually or literally. But I’m sure you realize that. Not all pastors get everything right. For instance, I love what John MacArthur teaches but I don’t agree with him on one naturism. And I didn’t agree with S.Lewis Johnson and his description of Joseph. So there are certainly areas where we all see things differently.
    Peace.

    • April 3, 2013 at 8:43 am

      Thanks, and yes, I certainly agree. When looking at particular texts I find I agree with certain teachers’ explanations but not with another’s, again differing for any particular text.

  7. April 4, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    I was wondering about a text and thinking how would the people who believe that the OT saints were not regenerated could ever explain this:

    “And he believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”
    (Genesis 15:6 ESV)

    Whose righteousness was imputed to Abraham when he believed God?

  8. April 4, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Yes, that’s a good scripture in response to that error. Obviously those with this confusion are not that studied and knowledgeable in the OT (and overall) scriptures.

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